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Future and Distant People Lesson Plan

Do we have any moral obligations to distant or future people?



You would lay down your life to save your mom, or your little sister. If they were starving, or being poisoned to death, you'd move heaven and earth to help them. Every minute of every day, innocent mothers and little girls across the globe are dying of starvation or toxic pollution. More will die in the next generation. What makes them different from your mom or your little sister? Are they too far away? Is the problem that you cannot see or imagine them? Is it that your moral responsibility extends only to your genetic tribe or regional population or nation?

It's so easy these days to harm others without knowing we are doing it. What you eat, what you buy, what you drive profoundly affects the life prospects of other people. Are you responsible for the well-being of people you've never met on the other side of the globe? What about for the future generations who will inherit our planet someday? If so, what are you morally obligated to do (to sacrifice?) for their sake?

How do we behave ethically in such an interconnected world?





The resources below are intended to give students an introduction to the problem that presents them with some of the major issues of the debate without going into much detail about any specific issue.

  • Intergenerational Justice  - Stanford Encyclopedia entry.  Unlike the other readings here, this is a serious academic essay that gives an overview of current philosophical thought on this subject.





Do: Ask students to think about and discus the following questions:

  • Does geographical or temporal distance effect the moral responsibilities we have to people in need in any way?
  • What reasons do we have to think that our moral responsibilities to those in need are confined to those of our own nation?  Are these reasons convincing?
  • Do we have the obligation to try to refrain from harming people of other nations, the obligation to help prevent suffering they might endure that we are not the cause of, both, or neither?
  • Do we have the obligation to try to refrain from harming future generations, the obligation to help prevent suffering they might endure that we are not the cause of, both, or neither?
  • How do we assesses the moral significance of our actions to generations of people that have yet to been born?  Can persons have rights even before they exist?
  • How much do the interests of such generations count in comparison to those of existing persons?  What are some schemes we can use for determining such comparisons? (e.g. count the interests of each person of a future generation as ½ as important as one of our own, the following generation’s persons receive ¼, etc.)
  • Given an issue like pollution and global warming, how do we weigh the interests and existing Americans with those of future generations of non-Americans? (e.g. what trade off do we make between current American jobs that pollute and the expected famines that will result in Bangladesh as a result of such pollution)


* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our Suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.